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Sex Interrupted: What India’s New Censorship Rules Mean For OTT Platforms

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Kiwi Tv, an erotic OTT platform, that marketed itself through video clips on Instagram, has switched its account to private in the past month. “It no longer is accessible to the public,” said a source at Kiwi Tv.

The change goes beyond social media. The company, which used to release between two and three episodes a week – mostly love-making scenes set against murder or treachery – has stopped producing shows. “We cannot take new subscribers till we get content certification from the Broadcasting Ministry,” the source said.

With India’s new rules for OTT content, platforms like Kiwi Tv must wait on guidance on what type of content is allowed. Their signature content – titillating shots of women’s bodies focusing on waists and bosoms – might not be allowed anymore.

For platforms already facing intense competition and constant police crackdowns, the new rules might spell the end.

What Are The New Rules?

On February 25, India’s Information and Broadcasting ministry released a set of new guidelines, the Information Technology (Guideline for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

The rules, formulated in response to the mushrooming of sexual content on OTT platforms, give OTT platforms three months to get their content certified and modify their websites to adhere to guidelines.

The new rules are confusing and vague. Under one of the sections, adult nudity in a non-sexual context will be certified U/A 16+ (Under Adult Supervision for ages 16 and below). But nudity in a sexual context will receive a higher certification of A (Adults Only). However, material that breaches criminal law, or is pornographic in nature, or breaches Sections 67 and 67A of India’s Information Technology Act, 2000 (which deals with cybercrime related to pornography), and 67B (which provides punishment for publishing or transmitting of material depicting children in sexually explicit in electronic form), will be disallowed.

Importantly, under the new law, the owner of the OTT platform will be held accountable for piracy of content.

“The rules are faulty: there’s no mention of the specific kind of scenes that can be shown for adult viewership, how the process of certification will work. With piracy – we can’t guarantee that content will not get pirated, no one has been able to for such a long time, and there’s no talk about police labeling just a kissing scene as porn,” said the source at Kiwi Tv.

Credits: MX Player

The rules have confused content creators and erotic production houses, who are unsure about what content is legal and certifiable, and what is not.

This fear has led to the closure of many erotic platforms, with some switching to produce non-erotic content. Some Kolkata-based OTTs like Love movies production and 11upmovies are still producing content regularly, while Mumbai-based erotic OTT platforms have stopped producing new content till further clarification.

After a year in which their popularity skyrocketed thanks to the Covid-19 lockdowns, OTT platforms are facing a reckoning.

Former Days of Glory

Indian OTT platforms witnessed substantial growth in viewership during the Covid-19 lockdown, thanks to shows like Gandii Baat, Fuh se Fantasy, Prabha Ki Diary, and Maastram. With more viewers tuning in to watch erotic content, platforms like CinemaDosti, Alt Balaji, Ullu, and Voot started to release shows regularly to cash in on the interest.

The growth benefitted performers too. Palak Singh, an actor in erotic shows, saw her career take off after she featured in the third season of a popular show called Gandii Baat. Her breakout performance was in an episode called Honeymoon on the Wheels which features a bus for couples who have no other place to get a sensual experience.

Palak’s character, Laxmi, dressed in low-cut body-hugging dresses, is a ghost that haunts such buses in the hope of finding her fiancé. “If the audience relates to a make out scene, my job as the sensual character is done,” said Palak, speaking to Silverscreen India.

She has played many such roles for platforms like Ullu and MX player. The demand for actors willing to appear in sensual roles that feature either suggestive sexuality or outright nudity rose during the lockdown and has continued to grab eyeballs, she added.

As her popularity grew, Palak gained followers on Instagram as well. An irregular Instagram user until five years ago, she started paying attention to her social media accounts after her audience started to grow. “Between March-end and August of 2020, a mass follow notification came in. Out of the total percentage of viewers, 90% were men and 52% were between 25 and 34 years old,” she said, reading out her Instagram analytics.

Singh’s experience with this surge in popularity is not surprising.

“Sex sells,” said Ayushraj Pandey, the Managing Director for CinemaDosti. Fortunately for Pandey, finding an audience was not difficult.

“Thanks to bigger platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, OTT delivery of content was already established as the next big thing,” he said.

Low monthly subscription fees – Alt Balaji ₹34, CinemaDosti ₹69, Kiwi Tv ₹79 and Ullu ₹24 – made it easier for the platforms to gain viewership.

However, after the lockdown ended, viewership has started to plateau. “August and September were the high moments that I recorded. October also. Then I remember December not so much and January is still going low,” said Pandey.

Screengrab from MX Player’s Mastram

Even with this dip, the model remains viable, and new platforms focused on erotic content continue to be launched. Kiwi TV was launched after the lockdown and had amassed over 3000 users on its app. Shivank Khandelwal, the marketing head of Kiwi TV feels that their viewership would have been higher if they had launched a year ago when there was less competition than now.

But the new rules have upended things. Kiwi Tv’s director Parag Sharma has decided to go on a three-month hiatus to clear his mind and start working on non-erotic content, and Ayushraj Pandey, in a bid to alter his former ‘erotic entertainment platform’ to ‘gold standard which includes general storylines too’ has started CinemaDosti Gold.

Erotica or Porn?

The debate on when erotica becomes pornography is age-old. OTT creators use their own definitions to claim that their content is not pornography. Khandelwal stresses, “Erotic content on our OTT platform is not porn. This is the problem. [People] do not understand that porn and erotic are different. We do not show penetration. It’s just foreplay.” (sic.)

No matter how sexualized the content is on Indian OTT content, an often-crude storyline seems to draw in audiences. Popular tropes like extra-marital affairs, content featuring Bhabhis (sisters-in-law) after the popular Indian erotic comic ‘Savita Bhabhi’, blackmail, erotic thrillers, and horror are frequently utilised.

Ullu’s Kavita Bhabhi was one of the most-watched series in Asia according to the platform’s promotional advertisements. CinemaDosti Gold’s new show Sundra Bhabhi 05’s trailer showcases Sundra and her father-in-law engaging in an incestuous relationship where he says “She has not only opened my eyes but other things as well.”

Between the months of March and October, the erotic market OTT has gained momentum. For instance, before being shut down by the Mumbai police’s cybercrime branch, Feneo Movies had over one lakh viewers. “Considering how most of the audiences are from Tier 2 cities, places like Pune, Patna, Lucknow, and Mumbai were among the top consumers for CinemaDosti,” said Pandey.

Viewership for erotic content is not the only reason why content creators are delving into this genre. Director Parag Sharma believes that the recession and financial difficulties caused during lockdown caused creators to start working on erotica.

“You can see that on OTT platforms, only two or three topics are popular. One is political issues, the other is a murder mystery, third is plain erotic content (sic),” he says.

He believes that he only got recognition after directing an erotic web series.

“I have [made] 150 songs on Raksha Bandhan (an Indian festival), spirituality, and a few nationalist songs too. But the public doesn’t notice them. Then I made two or three erotic films and got noticed” he said.

“Since erotica has always existed in some form or the other in cinema, it makes sense for people to explore the genre,” said Sharma. Having gotten more positive than negative feedback on his content, Sharma believes that the increase in the number of platforms only means that there will be more options for the audience.

Speaking about the fate of new platforms and the lull after lockdown, Ayushraj Pandey says, “We are seeing a decline. So, now it all comes to being innovative and different in order to keep sustaining ourselves. It is going to be a very hard time for all the OTT platforms that just came into the market.” He adds to sustain the kind of growth that they witnessed during the lockdown; OTTs have to come up with good content.

Kiwi TV has worked around the issue of re-launching their channel post the lockdown. Having started their channel only in January this year, they get almost 8,000 viewers for their content. Though the marketing head, Shivank Khandelwal is positive that the viewership could have been at least 10,000 if they had kick-started the platform during the lockdown, he notes, “There are many channels around. Weekly, there are 60-70 new content (web series) in this industry. Now, the business has been distributed over channels and so has revenue.” (sic.) Khandelwal’s response only cements that the OTT industry is booming making it difficult for any individual player to gain a solid foothold.

Police trouble

OTT platforms’ concerns with plateauing viewership and competition from new entrants have been compounded by police action in cities like Mumbai.

The Mumbai Cyber Crime branch has conducted regular raids on OTT platforms and registered several cases against them.

This led to the closure of Feneo in December 2020. This is not an isolated example. Recently, Gandii Baat actor Gehna Vasisth, also a director and producer, was arrested, along with nine others for allegedly making and uploading porn. The police claimed that the performers were coerced by Vasisth into making pornographic videos.

On November 10, 2020, the Maharashtra Cyber Department booked directors of seven OTT platforms and websites for allegedly showing pornographic content, under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Information Technology (IT) Act, and Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act.

According to a statement released by the department, the sites were Alt Balaji, Kooku, Ullu, HotShit, Flixmovies, Feneo, Neoflix, Hotmasti, Chikooflix, Primeflix, Wetflix, and others.

Frustrated by the constant police threat, Shivank asks, “Where in the entire video (referring to the sites against whom FIRS were registered) do any of these sites show penetration?”

Actors unaffected

Nehal Vadoliya in Mastram. Source: IMDB

The performers so far seem unaffected. For Gandii Baat actor Nehal Vadoliya, this is the least of her concerns.

Having acted in cameo and character roles in Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah and Samrat Chakravartin Ashoka, in 2018 she did her first erotic character, Vimala, ‘a bold and normal housewife’.

Since then, she has been part of other platforms like Ullu, MX Player, and platforms that have now closed like Hotshot and Neoflix, although their videos still exist on YouTube.

 Despite working for organisations that have now closed down due to not following government regulations, she has made sure that her interests are protected. “My work for such platforms is based on legal papers which I found appropriate and not in conflict with my choices,” she says (sic.)

Even though OTT platforms have been caught off guard by the government’s new rules, Nehal does not see this as a loss. “We are actors. Even if they discontinue erotic content, we will audition for other roles,” she concludes.

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